Student Activism Encourages Students to Climb Down From Their Ivory Towers

ByMichelle Chen

Student activism has a rich history and legacy. From the protests against American involvement in the Vietnam War across U.S. college campuses to the more recent Chilean protests against the country’s education system, student mobilization has proven critical to the ever-changing landscape of social justice. 

Scholars and activists from around the country touched on this very subject at the “Campus Activism” panel at BCRW’s Activism and the Academy: Celebrating 40 Years of Feminist Scholarship and Action conference. Addressing issues of queer and trans* organizing, Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies, and workers’ rights, the panelists underscored the indispensability of student and campus collaboration on local struggles to achieve broader visions of social change.

Above: Abigail Boggs, Debanuj Dasgupta, Stephanie Luce, Sandra K. Soto, Jesse Kadjo, and moderator Catherine Sameh discuss campus activism. 

The present activism of Barnard and Columbia students should come as no surprise. The Columbia University protests of 1968, in which students demonstrated against university affiliation with the Vietnam War and Columbia’s construction of a segregative gymnasium in Morningside Park, are remembered for their large-scale acts of student subversion. Hundreds were arrested and injured by the police called in by then Columbia President Grayson Kirk, and the university shut down in the face of utter chaos. Protestors ultimately claimed victory when Columbia scrapped its gym construction plans and its ties with the U.S. Department of Defense. Students thwarted the university’s racist and militarist acts, but not without incurring police brutality and racial tensions between protestors.

Along with the 1968 protests, the 1983 Apartheid Divestment Protest, the 1996 Ethnic Studies Hunger Strike, the 2006 Minuteman Project Protest, and various rallies, sit-ins, marches, and walk-outs in between have shaped Columbia’s activist climate. With the backing of a history of vigorous campus activism, students here are not afraid to take the lead. By collaborating on local struggles, current student organizations Take Back the Night and Student-Worker Solidarity are contributing to greater dialogues of social and economic change.

Established by Katie Koetsner in 2001, Take Back the Night (TBTN) is an international organization that seeks to end sexual violence through awareness events, with thousands of universities and women’s organizations taking part. The major event of the Barnard/Columbia branch is the Annual TBTN March and Speakout, which takes place on the third Thursday of every April. Students and members of the community rally in front of Barnard Hall, march throughout the Morningside Heights neighborhood, and congregate in LeFrak Gymnasium, where individuals can speak anonymously about their experiences with sexual violence. TBTN Barnard/Columbia facilitates conversation on a subject often cloaked in public discourse, but particularly salient to college campuses.

Student-Worker Solidarity found its inaugurating cause this semester in its fight for Barnard workers’ rights. In the face of Barnard administration’s demands for cuts in clerical workers’ basic benefits and a wage freeze, Student-Worker Solidarity and UAW Local 2210 united to push against these rollbacks. The groups collaborated on a teach-in and on October 19, 2012, Barnard workers approved a new contract that includes wage increases and health care benefits. Student-Worker Solidarity’s current project is speaking out against Indus Valley, a local restaurant that has withheld wages and tips from its workers for years. Teaming up with members of the greater NYC community, Student-Worker Solidarity is helping to advance economic justice beyond the university gates.

More than a space for academia, the campus is a means for accessing and activating activism. The sheer amount of resources (material, financial, interpersonal, etc.) at Barnard and Columbia offer students a jumping-off point to pursue their social justice interests. Available resources, coupled with the concentration of passionate students and college employees, allow for and even encourage campus activism. As historical events and current student organizations illustrate, collaboration on local struggles can lead to substantial progress.

What’s more, activism forces students to climb down from their ivory towers (while fully acknowledging their privileges) to engage in the struggles of their immediate and surrounding communities.

An earlier version of this article appeared at the Barnard Center for Research on Women's blog.